Thursday, November 7, 2019

Opinions and Observations: Inoue-Donaire

Throughout Naoya Inoue's meteoric rise in boxing he had faced minimal resistance. He had won world titles at 108, 115 and 118 lbs., yet so few of his fights challenged him in the ring. Only two of his 18 bouts had even gone the distance. And this unprecedented run was not a mirage; he had defeated worthy opposition. He stopped Adrian Hernandez, who many ranked as the top guy at junior flyweight when they fought. Omar Narvaez was also ranked number one at junior bantamweight when they met in 2014. In addition Inoue beat credible contenders, titlists and future champs such as Ryoichi Taguchi, David Carmona, Kohei Kono, Jamie McDonnell, Juan Carlos Payano and Emmanuel Rodriguez. In fact, bettering this solid slate of opponents propelled Inoue's rise to the elite in the sport. But where were the tough fights?  

Perhaps then it may have been surprising that Nonito Donaire, the old war horse at 36, who had lost two of his last five fights coming into Thursday's bout, was the first one to draw blood on Inoue. After all, Donaire's place in the World Boxing Super Series bantamweight tournament seemed at first as nothing more than a cute publicity stunt, a nod to a former champ with name recognition whose best days were at least a half-decade behind him.  

Photo Courtesy of the World Boxing Super Series

Although some unforeseen circumstances (injuries and replacement fighters) led to Donaire reaching the tournament final, he quickly proved on Thursday that he wasn't there for a final career cash out; he was in Japan to win the whole damn thing. In the second round he detonated his patented counter left hook on Inoue's right eye. The shot immediately opened a cut and sent Inoue to the ropes in retreat. In an unfamiliar sight, Inoue was forced to clinch. I'm not sure that he had ever been hit with something so ferocious. Suddenly Inoue, The Monster, was human. 

Few fighters can force a Day of Reckoning like Donaire. He's been one of the elite power punchers in the sport over the last decade and will be able to roll out of bed when he's 80 years old and flatten someone with his left hook. 

And it wasn't just this one moment. In the eighth he landed a jarring counter right hand and Inoue was once again in trouble. His eye started bleeding all over the ring and Donaire was in the ascendancy.  

But in the 10th round Inoue demonstrated his championship mettle. With pulverizing right hands and left hooks, he turned the tables on Donaire, who needed the bell to save him from further damage. In the 11th Inoue cracked a left hook to the liver and as is often the case with that type of shot, the punch short-circuited Donaire. A delayed reaction occurred and Donaire was forced to take a knee. Somehow he was able to make it to his feet (some shoddy work from ref Ernie Sharif may have helped), but Donaire was in real trouble. The stoppage was close to arriving until he landed a left hook that made Inoue stop and recalibrate. It was that shot which enabled Donaire to see the end of the round, and subsequently make it to the final bell. 

In the end Inoue won by a unanimous decision, with scores of 117-109, 116-111 and 114-113 (I also had it 116-111). Ultimately, his more consistent work in the middle rounds of the fight and his strong close proved to be the difference. With the victory Inoue is now a unified titlist at bantamweight and the winner of the 2018-2019 World Boxing Super Series Tournament. 

Inoue faced his first real gut-check moment as a professional on Thursday. And despite experiencing the most extreme duress of his career, he was the one who swept the championship rounds, erasing any possible doubt as to who deserved to be the victor. This fight turned out to be the final test in his development. Sure, we knew about his blazing hand speed, crushing power and pinpoint accuracy, but could he catch? He has now answered that question in the affirmative.

Inoue-Donaire highlighted the best that boxing has to offer: world-class punching, elite-level skills, wonderful ebbs and flows, tactical adjustments, and respect being earned in the ring. Both fighters were hurt at multiple points in the fight – Donaire in the 5th, 10th and 11th and Inoue in the 2nd, 8th and 9th. Each took turns leading and countering. Both displayed menacing firepower. It was thrilling to watch, exhilarating, the type of fight that reaffirms boxing fans' love for the sport. 

In the aftermath of Thursday's result it's natural to ask questions of Inoue. Was he a tad overrated or did his performance highlight even additional dimensions to his all-around boxing ability? I fall in the latter camp. Inoue faced an excellent version of Donaire, the one who was once among the best in the sport.

Since aligning with trainer Kenny Adams, Donaire has rediscovered many of his former dimensions. He took his right hand out of storage, and with wonderful results. He looked comfortable leading. Donaire wasn't plodding along, waiting, waiting, and waiting for an opening to land his left hook. No, he was using all of his weapons, not only to capitalize on mistakes, but also to create his own openings. Overall it was his most well-rounded performance since his stoppage of Toshiaki Nishioka in 2012. 

Since that victory seven years ago Donaire would rise and fall. He had periods where he had lost his passion for the sport. He made several trainer switches. He developed some bad habits in the ring. But on Thursday it was like old times. Here, in the winter of his career, he had suddenly found himself, and he was going for broke against one of the best fighters in boxing.  

After the fight Inoue showered Donaire with praise and admitted that there were still areas to improve for future fights. To my eyes there are two places in particular where Inoue needs to focus: His head is a little still, which makes him able to be countered by a capable craftsman. In addition, he does spend an extra second or two in the pocket admiring his own work. He's used to seeing opponents crumble from his power shots. Yet some foes have the beard to take shots and throw some in return. Inoue wasn't expecting to get hit by some of Donaire's blows; he's going to have to learn to respect his opponents a little bit more in the ring. 

But all of that is fine for another day. Ultimately, Inoue demonstrated yet again that he is can't miss television. With guns blazing in his fists and possessing the heart and determination to overcome adversity, his total package has few rivals among active fighters. And with his new deal with Top Rank, expect American boxing audiences to fall for the Japanese dynamo. 

As for Donaire, whether he decides to call it quits after Thursday's fight or if he continues to soldier on, he has once again reminded boxing fans of his greatness. From 2007-2013 he truly was one of the elite in the sport. He certainly was a devastating puncher, but at his best he was much more than that. He had intelligence, ring savvy, a multiplicity of skills and a rock-solid chin. His record of 40-6 doesn't even begin to do him justice.  

At the age of 26 Inoue is squarely in his prime. He has the pedigree in the ring, the media platform and the potential opponents at 118 to 122 lbs. to become a commanding figure in the sport. But threats abound, from the technical savvy of Nordine Oubaali to the straight left of Zolani Tete to the crushing punching power of Luis Nery. Inoue is now in the thick of a great run of opponents and expect that trend to continue. He believes in the concept of risk. And while he may or may not emerge as the definitive fighter of this era, he certainly wants to find out in the ring. He demands challenges. He chases greatness. And that should make us all happy campers. 

Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of saturdaynightboxing.comHe's a member of Ring Magazine's Ring Ratings Panel and a Board Member for the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board. 
snboxing on twitter. SN Boxing on Facebook.   

1 comment:

  1. Great article..Ive been a big fan of Inouye and this fight made him rise in my estimation